Wrongfully Convicted: One Man's Story

Sidebar to the article Postconviction DNA Testing Is at Core of Major NIJ Initiatives by Nancy Ritter

by Dwayne Dail

Editor's Note:

On September 4, 1987, a man cut through the screen of a bedroom window in Goldsboro, North Carolina. The 12-year-old girl who was sleeping in the room heard him and ran for the door. She didn't make it. The man held a knife to her throat and raped her. Dwayne Allen Dail was 20 years old when he was sentenced to two life sentences plus 18 years for the crime. On August 28, 2007, Dail was exonerated by DNA evidence after serving more than 18 years in prison. Dail — and his lawyer, Christine Mumma — spoke at the NIJ Conference last summer.

Here, in his own words, is Dail's story.

On an unusually warm November day in 1987, I was standing in a friend's yard with some friends when a woman elbowed her way through our circle, instead of walking around us. I was a cocky and sarcastic 19-year-old, so I said, "Excuuuuuse me!" She turned around and blasted me so much so that she kind of scared me. I just backed up and let her say her piece. After she had gone, one of my friends told me that I'd have to excuse her because her daughter had been raped the month before, and she was very upset.

The next day, I went over to my mom's house to visit. A police detective had been there, left his card and asked that I give him a call. He asked me to come to the police station to answer some questions. I had no idea what it was about.

At the police station, they asked me where I was on September 4. That had been a few months prior and I could not remember exactly where I was on that night, so that's what I told the detective. Then, they gave me a court order to submit hair, saliva and blood samples, which I did without a problem and without a worry. Some weeks later, I received a letter from my attorney, saying that I could consider the case over with and that it was obviously a black perpetrator. I had never considered it a "case" to begin with, so it was very easy for me to consider it over with. I hardly gave it another thought and it eventually just faded from all thought.

Months later — on May 13, 1988 — I was having dinner at my mom's house, reading the local newspaper, when I saw an article saying that I had been indicted for first-degree rape, first-degree sex offense, first-degree burglary, indecent liberties with a minor, and a lewd and lascivious act. I drove to the police department, but they said they had no idea what it was all about, so then I drove to the Wayne County Sheriff's office. There, I was taken to a basement, handcuffed to a heating pipe, and fingerprinted. I was taken in front of a magistrate where I pleaded my innocence to no avail and was sent to jail with no bond. I spent four days in jail, getting my brains beat out on several occasions, waiting for my bond hearing, which was on the following Tuesday morning.

At my bond hearing, the judge gave me a $5,000 bond and I was bailed out by my family. For several weeks afterward, I would wake up screaming from nightmares and was more scared than I had ever been. I spent almost a year out on bond, awaiting trial.

Before my trial began in March 1989, I was offered a plea bargain: I could plead no contest to the misdemeanor and take three years' probation. But I turned that plea bargain down, because I had not done anything, and I was not pleading anything but not guilty.

My trial started on Monday. I was convicted on Wednesday. On Thursday, I was sentenced to two life sentences and 18 years and, on Friday, I was sent to Central Prison in Raleigh, N.C.

I will never be able to remember that Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. I have been shown letters that I wrote to my family on those three days, but I have no recollection whatsoever of writing those letters. I was extremely out of my mind for a long time. It took me a long time before I could get myself back together.

I was taken to Polk Youth Institution in Butner, N.C., where I was processed, and during the orientation process, a programmer was roughing us up a little bit verbally. I was just trying to ignore that, trying not to cry in front of all these people that I had to spend the remainder of my natural life with. Then the programmer said, "It is your fault that your mothers are at home with broken hearts and crying."

That was more than I could take. My mother had to be taken out of the courtroom just the day before and was hospitalized — and it was not my fault — so I stood up, and I cussed him out. I started crying and screaming. The programmer let me vent, then he told everybody to go back to the block — "except you" — and he pointed at me. That may have saved my life. I wish that I could remember his name. He was a very good man.

He was, like, "What is wrong with you?!"

So, I told him about my week.

He asked me if I was scared, and I said, "Yes, I was scared." He asked me if I would feel safer in a smaller block around less violent inmates. And I said "Yes, please. Any kind of help that you can give me, I will appreciate." So he took me to the sergeant's office, and they told me to sign a paper. I had no idea what "protective custody" was, but I signed myself into protective custody.

They did put me into a smaller block with less threatening inmates. It was a lot less threatening, but it was no less terrifying. I immediately began writing letters to the governor, to senators, to newspapers. My family began the campaign that took us almost 19 years of writing every newspaper, Dear Abby, Oprah, everyone.

I spent two or three months at Polk in protective custody. When I came up for a custody review, they asked me if I wanted to remain in protective custody or if I wanted to go into the regular population. So far, nothing had happened to me in protective custody, so I stayed in protective custody. I was sent from Polk to Blanch Youth Institution, which is somewhere in the mountains of North Carolina, built back in the twenties. It was very old and decrepit, and it should have been razed many, many years ago. I was placed into a single cell. I stayed in that cell for about eight months. I had never been so confined in my life. There is no way that someone who has not gone through it could understand what the mental torture of being locked up for 23 hours and 45 minutes a day — alone — is like. It is a terrible, terrible feeling.

During that time, my family and I continued writing letters. I began reading everything that I could about cases like mine and ran across a mention of DNA evidence, which was new. I wrote my attorney and asked her about DNA evidence. I wanted a DNA test, but she told me that I had to wait for my direct appeal.

So, I turned 21 at Blanch, and after six months, I had another review. They asked me if I wanted to remain in protective custody or if I wanted to go into the regular population. I did not think that I was going to survive anyway, so I chose to take my chances in the regular population. I could not take any more of that box.

Since I had turned 21, they sent me to an adult prison, Eastern Correctional in Maury, N.C. In comparison to Polk and Blanch, Eastern was a new institution — freshly painted, floors waxed. The inmates there were older and seemed much calmer and relaxed and actually polite. You heard, "Excuse me," whereas everywhere else that I had been, you had to walk around a corner very broadly because you never had any idea of what was on the other side of that corner.

I stayed at Eastern for a few months, started taking a couple of classes and met a few people who became friends. I became comfortable, and because of that — because I became too comfortable — I was raped. I let my guard down. I was not as vigilant as I could have been, and as a result, I was raped and beaten. That was just the beginning of a long, long road of brutalities that I suffered.

I was transferred maybe 18 times to 16 different prisons.

I wrote my attorney continuously. I wrote the governor every day. Every day, I wrote the governor about my innocence. I wrote the President. And I got no response, no help, no one was willing to do anything.

Then, I read about a Virginia case in USA Today about a man who had requested a DNA test, but the evidence in his case had been destroyed. I immediately wrote my attorney, and I asked her to please file an injunction so that the evidence in my case could not be destroyed. I said I wanted a DNA test done. She wrote me back and promised me that she would. I did not hear back from her, so after a few weeks, I wrote her again. I did not hear back from her.

In 1995, my family was told that evidence in my case had been destroyed the year before. I knew the power of DNA and the science — I had read so many stories by that time, so many books, so many magazine articles about the power of DNA — so, when I heard that the evidence in my case had been destroyed, I felt like my life was actually over.

Then, in 2001, my sister heard about the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence. We immediately contacted them, and they sent me an application. I knew that it's very rare that a case is accepted for investigation, but when my case was accepted, I started counting the days until I was going home.

In 2004, the center wrote me back, saying there was nothing they could do for me, that the evidence had been destroyed. They had inquired on every angle that they could, but the evidence in my case had been destroyed. They had contacted the victim — which was a very rare circumstance — and the victim was not interested in speaking about it. And of course, you cannot push that. She had been a 12-year-old child.

So, my family and I started doing the only thing that we could. We started looking for ways to make parole, which I was eligible for in 2009. But part of my being able to make parole would have been going through a sex offender class and expressing remorse to the parole board — and I just could not do that. I would not do that. My attorney told me that I would have to do that, and I told him I would just have to die a very old man in prison because I was not going to admit guilt for a crime that I did not commit.

On August 1, 2007 — a day I'll never forget — I was called to the visitation area. That's when Chris Mumma introduced herself as the executive director of the North Carolina Center, which kind of threw me because they had written me three years before that the evidence in my case had been destroyed and there was nothing they could do. Chris said that evidence in my case had been destroyed, "or so we had been told" — twice.

Then, she said, "Mr. Dail, we have found evidence in your case, and we're going today to put our hands on it."

I fell out of my chair and just burst into tears because I knew the evidence meant freedom. Evidence meant that I was going home, and I knew that.

Chris said, "Dwayne, I want to be sure. I need you to look me in the eye and tell me if there's any way that this evidence can link you back to this crime. You need to let me know now because it's going to hurt you as much as it can help you."

I told her, "Test anything and everything you can find. Test it. You test it fast … and when am I going home?"

On August 27, Chris told me, "Dwayne, your wait is over. You're going home tomorrow." I was released the very next morning. Mine was the fastest exoneration in the nation — my test results came back one day, and I was exonerated the next.

Throughout the years I was in prison — as a child rapist and it was a cross-racial crime … that should not matter, but unfortunately, it does: I was convicted for raping a 12-year-old black girl, and everyone in prison knew that — I endured many, many, many unimaginable things, things that are very hard to discuss, things that are very hard to deal with to this day. But the most important thing to me is that I survived. I'd like to think that I'm on my way back to being the same person that I was before all this happened. It's a long, hard road, but I'm on that road.

Date Created: March 9, 2009